In war, numerous tactics are used to weaken the enemy with a view to its ultimate defeat.
These range from bribery to insults, from ridicule and mockery to hostile propaganda, from threats of force to actual violence and expulsion. The precursor to all the above forms of persecution is a systematic process of dehumanisation.
Dehumanisation is a psychological process whereby the opponent is viewed as less than human and thus not deserving of moral consideration.
As human beings, we typically think that all people have some basic human rights that should not be violated. Even those accused of the most heinous crimes deserve to be treated justly and fairly, with dignity and respect. They should receive a fair trial, and should not be subjected to any sort of cruel or unusual punishment. Dehumanisation is a psychological process whereby the opponent is viewed as less than human and thus not deserving of moral consideration; any harm that should befall the enemy or any individuals associated with it is considered to be warranted and even morally justifiable.
It was dehumanisation which enabled the Nazis to slaughter millions of Jews and other minorities for it had become acceptable in society. The same factors were present in the genocides in the Balkans and Rwanda and which continue to play their part in the “War on Terror” today.
When the first group of Muslim prisoners was transferred to Guantanamo Bay detention camp in 2002 in the now notorious orange jumpsuits, eyes obscured behind blackened goggles, hands and legs shackled, George Bush described them as “the worst of the worst”. Donald Rumsfeld went a step further: “These people are so dangerous that they will chew through the cables of an aircraft to try and bring it down.” The choice of Guantanamo as the location of the prison was itself designed to dehumanise its prisoners — a mystery island off the coast of Cuba thousands of miles from anywhere. The only possible reason the leader of the “Free World” could be holding these people in such a place was because they were said to constitute such a great threat to our security.
As the years have passed and the horrific reality of the War on Terror policies have become exposed, many prisoners have been released allowing society to view them for the first time as human beings. As individuals with wives and children waiting for them, mothers and fathers who cry for them, they are ordinary human beings who talk, laugh and cry. As fellow human beings they feel pain and distress. With each prisoner being released from Guantanamo, a new tale is told and the rehumanisation process takes another step forward.
Currently there are still 171 detainees being held at Guantanamo, all still too inhuman to justify releasing back on the streets. Among these men is Shaker Aamer, a British resident originally from Madinah, the city of the Prophet Muhammed (pbuh). He is the last British resident being held at Guantanamo and has been there now for over 10 years, being one of the first men to be transferred to Guantanamo Bay. The US initially accused him of being a “recruiter, financier, and facilitator” for al-Qaeda and a close associate of Osama Bin Laden, although all charges have now been dropped and he has been cleared for release since June 2007. Nevertheless, he remains incarcerated, away from his British wife and four children, the youngest of whom he has never seen.
Although a campaign has been running in the UK for Shaker and is supported by Western human rights organisations such as Reprieve and Amnesty International, it has failed to gather momentum to the level it deserves. Indeed it is arguable that most Muslims in the UK have not even heard of Shaker Aamer, let alone the wider society. It is arguable that this has been a consequence of the campaign of dehumanization against him as a Saudi national in Guantanamo Bay.
In fact, Shaker left Saudi Arabia more than 25 years ago when he was barely 17. He spent time travelling in the US, Europe and the Muslim East, before settling in the UK in 1996 where he met his wife Zin. Shaker’s family describe him as a hands-on dad who changed nappies without complaint and helped around the house.
Both those who knew Shaker before his imprisonment and those who have gotten to know him since, have testified to his charismatic personality, his leadership skills and his concern for others. He was always at the forefront of enjoining the good and forbidding the evil. One of his friends, Ayub narrates how Shaker was unable to stand by and do nothing when he witnessed a man mocking a Muslim woman. Upset at the open insult of this lady, Shaker shouted at the man and ran after him demanding he apologise. Another friend Yasin described how Shaker was on a train on which someone began smoking. When an elderly gentleman politely asked the man to stop smoking, he was sworn at. Shaker again could not sit by and ignore what had happened. Rising from his seat, he confronted the smoker who could not get off the train quick enough. Everyone on the carriage applauded him for his action and courage. Shaker was also known for his great generosity toward his friends and companions despite living on a very humble income. He was always the one to insist on paying for meals and always bought gifts for his friends and their families.
While in London, Shaker worked as an Arabic translator for a solicitor who advised him on his immigration case. Helping refugees put Shaker where he loved to be — as counsel, listening and advising. But in the end, it was his dedication to the welfare of others that led to his incarceration in the gulag called Guantanamo Bay.
In June 2001, Shaker travelled to Afghanistan with his family as a charity worker to build a school for girls, ironically in a country which had been widely condemned for prohibiting women’s education. Following the NATO bombing of the country in October 2001, and fearing he would be taken prisoner by the Northern Alliance, who were suspicious of all Arabs in Afghanistan, Shaker made sure his pregnant wife and three children were safe before going into hiding with an Afghan family.
He was seized by bounty hunters and sold to other bounty hunters on two occasions before being bought by the Northern Alliance. He underwent merciless beatings at the hands of these groups who accused him of killing their leader before he was eventually sold to US forces. This is when Shaker’s real nightmare began as he arrived at Bagram Air Force Base at the end of December 2001.
Like other detainees, Shaker was subjected to the most brutal forms of torture with the US military using sleep deprivation and starvation tactics. Shaker was forced to stay awake for nine days straight and denied food. US personnel would pour freezing water on him. This treatment, combined with the bitter Afghan winter, caused Shaker’s feet to become frostbitten. He was chained for hours in positions that made movement unbearable, and his swollen, blackened feet were beaten. He was refused the painkillers he begged for. Shaker would later state how British intelligence officers were present during his torture.
Under such duress and desperate to end his torture, Shaker began to say whatever the US wanted, and as a result, he was transferred to Guantánamo Bay in February 2002. Despite the hardships he has endured, Shaker remains the kind and supportive person he was when he was captured, with his eloquence, mastery of English and reputation for looking out for his fellow prisoners. Shaker was seen as the natural leader of detainees, something which only enhanced his value to US interrogators. Soon the guards were referring to Detainee No. 239 as “The Professor”.
In 2004–2005, following a Supreme Court ruling that granted prisoners the right to file habeas corpus petitions asking why they were being held, Shaker helped a number of prisoners with their petitions by designating himself as their “next friend,” which authorized him to file suits on their behalf
In 2005, when the military police beat up a prisoner while he was praying, Shaker initiated the first hunger strike at Guantanamo with more than 300 prisoners refusing meals. The Americans knew that it was only Shaker they could negotiate with and he was taken from cell block to cell block to speak to the detainees. The then warden of Guantanamo Bay, Col. Mike Bumgarner, described how Shaker was treated like a “rock star” comparing him to Bon Jovi, in terms of the reaction he received from prisoners. Another officer des-cribed how Shaker “has an almost hypnotic power over some people.” This might help explain how two guards who were informed that Shaker was “the worst of the worst,” embraced Islam following discussions with him.
Despite promising to improve conditions in the camp, nothing changed and when the hunger strike began again in September 2005, Shaker was placed in solitary confinement as punishment and because of the huge influence he had over other prisoners.
In June 2006, Shaker claimed he was beaten for hours and asphyxiated during an interrogation on the same day that three other Guantánamo inmates died. The official story regarding these three men was that they committed suicide, but a number of soldiers who were present on the night in question cast doubt on the official account in an article published in Harper’s Magazine in January 2010, which was also the first time that Shaker’s account of that night came to light.
Shaker was finally cleared for release in June 2007 when it was established that there was no evidence against him concerning accusations of terrorism. Yet he remains incarcerated, the only remaining Briton in Guantanamo, and has spent lengthy period, often up to two years, in solitary confinement, for standing up for the rights of prisoners. His health continues to deteriorate; his lawyers recently described that he suffers from arthritis, asthma, heartburn, prostate pain, ear problems, neck, shoulder and back pain, kidney pain, haemorrhoids and rectal pain, insomnia, serious infection of his nails, ring worm and itchiness between his legs, concluding that “he is gradually dying in Guantanamo Bay.”
Shaker’s youngest child recently said how he tries to imagine what his father is like when his family talks about him. Beyond the dehumanizing propaganda spun by the US, let us never forget that there is a caring husband and father of four in Guantanamo dying because of his desire to help others in need. Let us remember his wife to whom he wrote the following words: “You are the soul of my life. You are the best of my heart. You are the light of my eyes. You are the oxygen in my lungs, you are the Sun on my back, the sweetest taste of my mouth, you are everything, you are everything I need to live, to love, to be… Do you know how much you are important for my life. If you break I will break, if you become weak I will become weak and if you go I will go. You are my soul twin. I need you to be strong.”